Congress’ passage of the fiscal 2016 omnibus bill last week included a litany of policy initiatives, but failure to attach a critical education act, supporting proven education reform in Washington, D.C., has city educators, parents and students wondering where schools fall on legislators’ agenda.
The Scholarships for Results and Opportunity (SOAR) Act promises to preserve Washington’s diverse and thriving education choice environment, but is set to expire. The bill, passed in October with bipartisan support, allocated up to $20 million in improvement funds for traditional public schools and public charter schools in the city. It also reauthorized the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP), allotting up to $20 million for vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools.
Evidence of the success of the three-sector education and federal partnership had proponents expecting the bill would be attached to the $1.1 trillion omnibus, guaranteeing a five-year reauthorization.
Currently reauthorized through 2016, annual funding for SOAR needs to be appropriated each year and students’ families have highlighted the need for long-term continuation.
A letter signed by more than 500 District school parents stated: “The SOAR Act is an example of what works in education. When we can choose the best public, charter, or private school for our children, there are not only more opportunities to engage in their education, but also for them to achieve greater academic excellence. These outcomes strengthen the city’s education system as a whole.”
Kevin P. Chavous, executive counsel for the American Federation for Children, has been a consistent champion for high-quality education options for D.C. families.
“While many of us are, of course, disappointed that the reauthorization of the DCOSP was not included in the omnibus bill, we remain determined to get it done in 2016 and keep the program alive,” Mr. Chavous said. “Over the past several weeks, I have personally met with many of the parents, kids and participating schools’ leaders and each stakeholder is ready to fight for the OSP. I hope to help build on this enthusiasm by engaging an army of local D.C. supporters, all eager to trumpet the success of the program and the need for it to continue.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, D.C. students are outpacing the nation in math and reading score gains over time. Fourth-grade students in both D.C. Public Schools and D.C. public charter schools averaged higher proficiency rates in 2015 as compared to 2013 in mathematics; reading performance also increased.
“In D.C.’s public charter schools, [National Assessment of Educational Progress] shows six years of steady improvement, which is good news for District students’ families,” said Scott Pearson, D.C. PublicCharter School Board executive director, in a statement released this fall. “We’ve cut the distance between D.C. and the rest of the nation’s performance in half since 2009. We have every expectation that trend will continue.”
Nearly half of the city’s students attend a nationally emulated system of high-performing charter schools. Charter enrollment has grown steadily in the city; and students in the schools generally achieve and graduate at higher rates than their traditional public school peers.
Grantees have a proven, high-achieving return on the investment of SOAR funds in the city’s public and charter sectors. Frontrunners include:
• The Flamboyan Foundation: A D.C. organization that engages families in collaboration with educators to improve student learning;
• Urban Teachers: A D.C. organization providing high-quality educators to charter and traditional public schools across the city;
• Center City Public Charter Schools: The charter network recognized by the D.C. Public Charter School Board as the fastest-improving network of schools in the city during the 2013-14 school year.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program continues to provide exceptional student outcomes; students who used their available opportunity scholarship graduated at rate of 93 percent, a rate at least 30 percent higher than their peers, according to research by Patrick Wolf, distinguished professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas. Ninety-seven percent of these students were African-American or Hispanic. Eighty-eight percent came from schools zoned in need of improvement.
The SOAR Act includes important improvements to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, including language preventing the education secretary from imposing artificial limits on its enrollment. Recent program changes have included establishing a new program administrator, Serving Our Children, taking the place of the D.C. Trust.
After nearly four decades of decreasing student enrollment, the number of students in city schools is on the rise, because parents have recognized an impactful education environment worth a long-term investment. Congress would do well to do the same.
• Ashley Bateman is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute.
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